Taking big steps to address worker shortage

From the pages of In Business magazine.

One nagging worry of the construction industry is whether builders will have enough workers to meet demand if a moderately growing economy “takes off.” Construction has painstakingly tried to recover labor that was lost — in some cases permanently — during the Great Recession but more needs to be done.

The overall economy might still have a ways to go, but greater Madison, despite recent body blows like the looming departure of Oscar Mayer, is in better shape than most. Yet one thing on Dane County’s “to-do” list is to help underrepresented people navigate the employment and training process.

Enter “Project Big Step,” a public-private partnership led by Dane County Executive Joe Parisi to connect job seekers, especially underrepresented people such as minorities and women, with construction companies that are ready to hire but have difficulty finding enough workers.

Modeled after a successful program in Milwaukee, Project Big Step is a strategy to strengthen the link between people looking for work and those looking to hire. It was produced in consultation with labor, business, and workforce development professionals, and it’s well aligned with local initiatives like Operation Fresh Start, an intervention for at-risk youth.

In the 2016 Dane County budget, $30,000 will be deployed to help administer Project Big Step. The money will be used to work with contractors and the building trades to identify job openings on forthcoming projects, such as an $18 million expansion at the Alliant Energy Center, and to partner with local community organizations to recruit and train people to fill those needs via apprenticeship programs. County government is also working with partners in the business community and the schools to remove barriers to employment, such as the lack of a driver’s license.

Like the companies who need them, the job seekers who stand to benefit are still in recovery mode. The construction industry hasn’t given up trying to lure back workers who left the industry during the recession, but when the labor shortage is this acute no stone should be left unturned.

The other encouraging thing about such initiatives is that the community is trying new things that can help break the cycle of poverty. Addressing income inequality is going to take time, and one factor in the climb-the-ladder equation is obtaining the skills to do productive work. The latest workforce project advanced by Dane County is a big step toward upward mobility.

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine – your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.